Massive Open Online Courses

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Massive Open Online Courses

by Brady Hicks

Docid: 00011253

Publication Date: 2007

Report Type: TUTORIAL


A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) uses on-demand video and collaboration
technology to educate a potentially limitless number of students online.
Bolstered by the rising cost of higher education – yet anchored by not actually
offering college credit – MOOCs are slowly emerging as a form that pressures
traditional institutions to consider new ways to use technology to interact
with, and reach, students. This consideration, it should be noted, can only
continue to grow as more and more workers and students are forced to interact
virtually rather than in person. This Tutorial looks more in-depth at this growing form of education
that has been called both ‘disruptive’ and ‘revolutionary’ at the same time.

Report Contents:

Executive Summary

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A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is one that uses video, social
networking, learning-management software, and
other technology
to conduct college-level classes over the Web.

Faulkner Reports
in Online
Education Technology Market

Typically, a MOOC consists of
prerecorded, on-demand videos, online
reading material, a discussion board, and online tests. By making the
videos both short and available on-demand, MOOCs intend for the content to

  • Convenient to access
  • Less burdensome to digest.
  • More appealing to users who prefer streaming media, multi-person virtual
    discussions, and cloud-based software.

Traditionally, most online courses are offered free of charge and made
publicly available, but do not grant credit. In spite of this factor, many
observers expect MOOCs to mature into an important element of higher education.
Among educators, there is both enthusiasm and skepticism about this idea. Some
see MOOCs as an alternative or supplement to a higher education system that is
growing increasingly costly and losing its
value. Others, however, question whether MOOCs can offer the personalized
attention and rigorous evaluation of in-person university seminars.

Ultimately, the degree to which MOOCs will
impact higher education remains
uncertain, and the innovation of providers and experiences of users
will shape this future in the coming years. But regardless of the exact
fate of MOOCs, it seems clear that many of the concepts and
technologies they employ will become standard parts of a typical
college education.

Top MOOC Competitors

There are several organizations
that offer MOOCs (by 2019 subscribers)1, of note:

  • Coursera* – 45 million
  • edX* – 24 million
  • Udacity** – 11.5 million
  • FutureLearn – 10 million
  • Swayam – 10 million

Additional top offerings include Canvas Network; free options such as Udemy;
educational video series such as Khan Academy, LinkedIn Learning, and Apple
iTunes U; and China’s XuetangX53

* Coursera’s and edX’s MOOCs often feature content from participating
universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
** Udacity has more of
an industry focus via partnerships with companies such as Google and Microsoft.


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Massive open
online courses
(MOOCs) have been developed at a time when traditional university education is
facing pressures from many sources. First among these pressures is cost. Recent
statistics have identified in-state, public, four-year college tuition to be
just shy of $22,000 (2020) per year2. This amount marks a 590 percent increase
over 1987-88’s $3,190 tuition3.

General factors to consider include:

  • Gradual reductions in state spending toward higher education4.
  • Increased
    presence of for-profit schools5.
  • Rising cost6.
  • Student debt7.

The Advent of MOOCs

Unlike students of the past, today’s students
are accustomed to getting content from YouTube or collaborating with
friends on Facebook, so MOOCs are designed in part to cater to this
new type of learner. The idea of making free educational material widely available
is not
new to MOOCs. Many educators have promoted the concept of OERs (open educational
resources), which entails offering textbooks and other
teaching aids for free, often online. This free material can be used by people
learning independently or by teachers as part of a course.

MOOCs, however, go beyond offering learning materials by developing and
entire courses. These courses aim to make education more broadly available,
especially to people who cannot afford traditional courses or whose
lives make it difficult to attend on-site classes at set times. In
addition to making education more available, MOOCs aim to respond to
technology trends such as on-demand content, anytime-anywhere access,
and social networking.


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As recently as two years ago, MOOC adoption for "at least one" session is
over 110 million (2019), with more than 13,500 courses offered.8 This
amount is up 10 percent from 2018’s 100 million9, up 36 percent from
2017’s 81 million10, up 90 percent from 2016’s 58 million11
and 2015’s 35 million12.

General advantages / disadvantages to MOOCs and their continued adoption, according
to a recent piece by Forbes13, are detailed in Table 1.

Table 1.
MOOC Advantages / Disadvantages
Advantages Disadvantages
  • Student scalability.
  • Improved use of resources.
  • Students work at their own speed.
  • Other constraints eliminated.
  • No true system to assess progress.
  • Lack of course credit integration.
  • No personalized guidance.

Class Models

A familiar
format has
developed for MOOCs that consists of pre-recorded videos broken into small
segments, often just three or four minutes long. These videos are sometimes
halted while an on-screen question appears, and then the video continues after
the student has correctly answered. Short, modular videos allow students to
somewhat personalize their learning paths.
The format also
includes a course
discussion board in which students answer each other’s questions, a
substitute for assistance from a professor, which would be
impractical in classes of several thousand people. Online readings
might be included, and students are sometimes given the option of
buying a textbook. Homework assignments and tests are often part of the
course, but they are usually graded automatically or by other students.
A typical course is about half the length of a traditional college

Not all MOOCs, however, are
the same. The two primary
distinctions being made are between:

  • xMOOCs (eXtended MOOCs)– Offer activities that are
    closely controlled by the instructor.
  • cMOOCs (Connectivist MOOCs) – Encourage students explore the topic with
    some freedom.

Table 2 provides an
overview of two MOOCs on similar topics.

Table 2. Comparison of Two MOOCs
Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering
Circuits and Electronics
  • Developed
    by Rice
  • 12
  • Video
  • Course
  • Discussion
  • Final
    exam with 15
    most of which required students to perform engineering analysis based
    on information such as circuit diagrams (cheating was discouraged by
    making students click to confirm their commitment to an honor code)
  • Developed
    by MIT
  • 16
  • Video
  • Course
  • Discussion
  • “Community
    assistants” to help influence discussion board
  • An
    textbook available freely online
  • Interactive
    tools for
    creating and testing circuit diagrams
  • Final
    exam proctored by
    Pearson VUE, taken at a testing center

Concerns, Criticisms, and Challenges

Amidst the enthusiasm for MOOCs
there has also been significant skepticism:

  • MOOCs are intrinsically unable to offer the
    personalized, expert guidance that professors of traditional classes
    provide, and they are poised to create another roster of diploma mills.
  • Technical and
    organizational problems.
  • Security, as the mechanisms to prevent cheating and the stealing of
    content remain largely untested.
  • Legal requirements that could force virtual colleges to get permission
    from – and often pay fees to – the states in which they intend to operate.


Generally, these types of
services are able to generate such profits by providing information about
students to headhunters or companies
looking for recruits – with potential employers even able to search through user
statistics – or by offering value-added
services such
as enhanced course content,
personalized attention, or offline activities such as conferences.


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The Design of Courses

It is difficult to
envision a future for higher
education in which the core components of MOOCs – on-demand video, data
analytics of course activities, and collaboration technology – do not
play important roles. But whether what is thought of as a MOOC will
become a core part of accredited, tuition-based education is uncertain.
Most of the schools providing content for MOOCs have excellent
reputations. But MIT, Harvard, Stanford, the University of
Pennsylvania, and others built their reputations using the traditional
educational model, and it remains to be seen whether their MOOCs will
develop similar statuses.

Some common concepts for accredited education include:

  • MOOCs and traditional courses used in conjunction. In one such hybrid scenario, MOOCs would serve
    as course material, much like textbooks14.
    Instead of
    assigning students to read a chapter, professors will ask students
    to watch a set of videos. Like textbooks, these videos in
    cases will be created by someone other than the professor teaching the
    course, and most courses, regardless of where they are taught, will use
    one of a handful of standard texts or video collections that are widely
    recognized throughout the field.
  • MOOCs providing students with the
    fundamental knowledge
    they would
    traditionally get in large lecture courses. Classroom courses will
    then provide higher-level, personalized instruction.

MOOC Student Profile

Studies show that of
the small percentage of MOOC students who complete their courses, many
are already educated, motivated, and employed, suggesting that online
classes, contrary to the hopes of their advocates, are not greatly
expanding opportunities for people who cannot attend traditional
colleges.15 While MOOCs remain widely used
and a subject of
interest, many in the field have tempered
expectations for how greatly and how quickly online courses might
change education.


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Most believe that MOOCs could
impact education to some degree, and are also likely
to provide opportunities for technology and content providers. To respond effectively to this trend,
however, it will be crucial
for all parties to carefully follow developments in the field, which
could change quickly. In particular, Duke University’s Center for Instructional
Technology identified the following considerations16 as key questions
to be answered about MOOCs:

  • What
    student or faculty characteristics
    predict the success of a MOOC?
  • Is it possible to establish
    benchmarks for engagement, retention
    and completion?
  • What factors would influence these — discipline?
    length? pedagogy?
  • What role can technology
    play in helping to identify true
    ‘students’ versus lurkers?”

Other answers
will come from Big Data, which can
be used to analyze learning outcomes. Unlike traditional
college programs, in which having 100 students is considered a large
class and
in which many seminars have fewer than 20, MOOCs often have several thousand students. As a result, statistical analysis is more
meaningful. And since all activity is conducted online through
software, data can be processed with automated tools that display
graphically. For instance, software can assess when
students are most
likely to leave a course or what types of activities and assessments
are most effective. The data that is gathered can be used to improve
individual courses and to better understand learning in general.

MOOCs were
conceived largely by top institutions like Stanford and MIT, so at
heart they approach teaching in familiar ways. But Big Data may shape
the educational experience into forms that traditional educators do not
recognize. The effects of Big Data will be impossible to predict, yet
often they will be too compelling to ignore. Universities will
therefore need to prepare for an environment in which new standards for
teaching emerge quickly and in which not reacting fast will put them
behind the times.


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About the Author

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Brady Hicks is an editor with Faulkner Information Services. He writes about computer and
networking hardware, software, communications networks and equipment, and the

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